T’was the night before Christmas…



As the shutters are at last put into place and the shop is closed for Christmas, Alastair Peebles – who worked for Berry Bros & Rudd from 1970 until 1986 and, for nine years, was in charge of the Wine Division – recalls the unique, and rather magical, atmosphere of Christmases past

I have just been lucky enough to attend a luncheon in the dining room at No. 3 St James’s, hosted by the Chairman and attended by some marvellous old – or possibly “familiar” would be kinder – faces, many of them colleagues from more than 30 years ago. With Christmas just a few days away, our conversation naturally turned to reminiscences about how things used to be “in the old days”.

In the early 1970s, Christmas at Berry Bros. was absolutely frenetic; almost half the annual turnover was achieved in November and December alone. General manager John Knowles was in charge, along with shop manager Vic Hutchinson, while Arthur Merritt looked after the cellars.

For 10 months of the year, the shop opened from 9.30am to 5.00pm; after the doors closed, we then had half-an-hour to finish writing out any orders left over from the day. From the first day of December, this all changed. The opening hours stayed the same but the four of us in the shop took orders constantly – there wasn’t a moment to transcribe them from our notepads to the official order forms until after we had closed.

So, after 5pm, we sat down and did our orders, which were then typed up in the General Office under the very tight supervision of Cicely Knowles, John’s wife. There were no computers – everything was entered by hand into the ledgers or onto cards. Alan Stapleford and Stephen Morgan took care of stock; the remarkable Helen Parker, whose beehive hair-do challenged gravity, took care of the accounts. Charles Dickens would have felt pretty much at home.

But the great perk for all this work, apart from the generous and much-needed overtime, was that we were all fed a terrific two-course dinner at 7pm, before going back to order writing and finishing up sometime around 9pm. When I first joined, we all trooped off across St James’s Street to the Blue Ball Yard café, an Italian family run business. We were allowed to take our own wine, which was invariably something old and unlabelled, not usually of the finest pedigree, but almost always delicious to drink.

The Blue Ball Yard café went the way of most small businesses in St James’s and was redeveloped into office space, so we then went to the Italian café at No. 2 St James’s until that too fell victim to development. From then on, we started to have our meals in-house which was probably the most fun of all. There was something magical about sitting in the shop in the evening with the shutters in place and without a customer in sight, having completed our orders, enjoying a glass of something and a meal created by the Directors’ Dining Room cook, who always managed comfort food very well.

By that time Vic and John had retired and Peter Bennett, Ian Campbell and Lance Jefferson were in charge. The computer was still in its infancy and orders were pretty much all put through by hand. I still have memories of George Short, our chief accountant, coming down into the shop through the door behind the scales and haranguing the staff for some very iffy sales order entries.

We all enjoyed those evenings, but they weren’t without the occasional accident. The very steep wooden stairs down to the cellars claimed Peter when he was carrying a tray full of plastic cups of coffee. We were sitting in the shop and there was a huge crash followed by a plaintive cry for help – Peter had fallen and managed to get his foot trapped in the bottom rung. Instead of rushing to help, I seem to remember a certain amount of merriment until either Ian or Lance eventually went down, released him and mopped him up.

The shop worked much in the same way until well into the 1980s. It was an absolutely magical time, complete with that wonderful ‘end of term’ feeling when the shop closed early in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. By that time, St James’s Street looked like part of a ghost town, signalling that, at last, we could all head home for Christmas.

Alastair Peebles founded and runs the Devon Wine School, which operates from Dart’s Farm, Topsham, near Exeter.